After watching the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump three times — yes three — there is no question Clinton won the night with a strong performance.
While the election as a whole may be focused on the differences in the policy positions of Clinton and Trump, the debate itself highlighted the different paths taken by the candidates in preparing for the event at Hofstra University.
Clinton had spent the previous three evenings participating in late-night debate press sessions near her home in New York and was mostly off the campaign trail in the last week.
Trump, on the other hand, maintained an active schedule in the days leading up to the event, and his debate prep was as unconventional as his campaign. He met with his top campaign staff only on Sunday to review strategy.
Trump attempted to use that schedule to claim he was the stronger candidate, both physically and politically. “I’ve been all over the place,” he said to Clinton. “You decided to stay home, and that’s okay.”
Clinton waited patiently to answer and then responded with one of her best lines of the night. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” said Clinton. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing.”
Throughout the entire debate, both candidates appeared on television in split-screen, and the electorate saw two contrasting candidates.
On the left side of the screen was Trump, who interrupted Clinton dozens of times while she was speaking, a guy who repeatedly took sips of water during the debate, gestured with his hands and made wild facial expressions in response to Clinton.
On the right side of the screen stood Clinton, who controlled the tempo and tenor of the debate, and was an effective advocate for her record as well as for prosecuting Trump on his shortcomings in matters of policies and business.
Trump started the debate strong, but faded 30 minutes in, as Clinton took control and led the Republican nominee down numerous rabbit holes. She poked him on nearly every known weakness, and Trump seemed more than willing to engage Clinton on her terms.
Near the end of the night, after taking a drink of water, Trump made it clear he didn't believe Clinton had the “stamina” to be president. “I said she doesn’t have the stamina. And I don’t believe she does have the stamina. To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina.”
As soon Trump said “stamina” for the third time, you could tell Clinton was ready to swing for the fences. “Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents ... or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she said.
Clinton had to deal with questions about her health after she was forced to leave a 9/11 commemoration ceremony early. And her response reminded me of President Ronald Reagan's most famous line during one of his debates with former Vice President Walter Mondale: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” It also puts an end to the debate over her health.
In the hours after the debate, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was in full spin-mode, complaining about Trump's unfair treatment by the media.
And in the days that follow, we should expect Trump to (try to) explain the statements he made in the debate. He’ll especially need to do so on climate change, as Clinton exposed him as someone who believes the issue is a hoax created by the Chinese.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
He’ll also need to explain — again — why he won't release his tax returns, as Clinton effectively raised serious questions as to why Trump has yet to publicly release his tax returns, bucking a trend of disclosure by presidential candidates of nearly 40 years.
And it will be Trump who will need to explain why he trafficked in what Clinton described as a “racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen.”
As for Clinton, I believe her performance last evening will give her candidacy a much-needed boost of energy, maybe even give her the sort of “stamina” needed to maintain, and perhaps extend, her lead over Trump.